I bought this delightful little book from a discounted bookstore on my local high road.
The bookstore itself is amazing -one of the benefits of witnessing the complete collapse of the publishing industry is that there are bargains to be had for ghouls like us. All you need to do is find a remainder store that knows how to buy really well.
A Short History of Myth is -simply- stunning.
Stunning to the point that it has me seriously considering alterations to my Book Game answers.
It would, at the very least, feature if you were planning on building an armchair magician. (Reading The Book of English Magic has convinced me the term isn’t universally pejorative.)
As the title implies, it’s a small book. Apparently it was published as an opener to a whole series of small books on mythology. You can see why they chose it. The author, Karen Armstrong, presents an overarching timeline beginning with Neanderthal Man and ending with the twentieth century that puts mythological developments in both their geographic and chronological perspective.
She also manages to return value to mythology in a modern setting by locating its worth closer to ‘truth’ and away from ‘accuracy’:
Today the word ‘myth’ is often used to describe something that simply isn’t true. A politician accused of a peccadillo will say it is a ‘myth’, that it never happened. When we hear of gods walking the earth, of dead men striding out of tombs, or of seas miraculously parting to let a favoured people escape from their enemies, we dismiss these stories as incredible and demonstrably untrue. Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened. But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what the event had meant. A myth was an event which, in some sense, happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence(.)
Did I mention she used to be a nun? That would certainly explain the tremendous amount of sympathy and respect she shows for mythology. You won’t get “early man was scared of thunder so he invented a god call Thor” here. What definitely comes through is the story of someone who has had a lifelong relationship with spiritual belief, both on the inside and then on the outside.
I particularly like her contention that a myth cannot be understood outside of its ritualised context -and naturally uses the Eucharist as her example.
In mythology… we entertain a hypothesis, bring it to life by means of ritual, act upon it, contemplate its effects upon our lives, and discover we have achieved new insight into the disturbing puzzle of our world.
A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives factual information. If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. It is works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth. Mythology will only transform us if we follow its directives. A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly. If we do not apply it to our own situation and make myth a reality in our own lives, it will remain as incomprehensible and remote as the rules of a board game, which often seem confusing and boring until we start to play.
Anyone involved in the occult should be able to appreciate the perspective.
The chronological format -and indeed her argument- works well until the last chapter or so which cover the twentieth century and the broad abandonment of mythology as a guiding force in modern life. Some of the conclusions drawn are more than a little tenuous.
But the real value comes in her explanation of the Axial Age: how it emerged, why it emerged, why it only emerged in those few places. It’s given me pieces to work with that I have been seeking for about seventeen years.
It’s cheap. It’s short. It’s awesome. Buy this book.
And if this review has got you in a mythological mood: below is one of my Florentine photo albums. We were first in to see David that morning. Apparently you weren’t supposed to take photos -which I didn’t know but explains why two angry Italian women are bowling toward the camera. It also explains why it’s a bit blurry because I couldn’t take another shot.
The rest of the images are of the Palazzo Medici. If I have my timeline right, the images of the library are where the Hermetica was first translated from Ancient Greek into Latin for wider dissemination. So it’s definitely Holy Ground.